Creating Calm in a Trauma-Informed Classroom

  • Their homes have changed. Their parents are worried.

    Their world has changed. They can’t play with their friends as easily as they used to. People are wearing masks, and some familiar places are now off-limits.

    Their schools have changed. After a spring that was cut short and a longer-than-usual summer break, schools are still not normal. Some are online. Some are in person, but vastly different than they used to be, with starkly rearranged classrooms, students separated, and routines upended

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    Is this a recipe for trauma?

    “Traumatic events are typically situations that are out of our control, beyond our usual experience, and cause us to feel as though our lives or the lives of others may be in danger,” says Adam D. Brown, PsyD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Academic Medical Center.

    “The COVID-19 pandemic certainly is an unusual, unexpected event that is causing many to worry and even panic,” Brown says. “Many children are seeing and hearing frightening news on television. Some have family members or other people they know who are sick or may have died. Our experience can vary greatly, based on not only different levels of exposure, but also on what is going on around the child.”

    In a different sort of trauma, children who lived through Hurricane Katrina were affected for years afterward. Two researchers who studied young people for seven years after the event found that those who experienced Katrina and its aftermath were more likely to suffer emotional fallout than other kids.

    “Disasters last a really long time in the lives of children,” said Alice Fothergill, a professor of the University of Vermont who worked on the research, in an interview with The Atlantic. Many children do bounce back, but the trauma still works its way into their psychological growth and future lives.

    What can you, as the teacher, do to help your students during this extraordinary time?

    Dominican University Online’s continuing education course, Creating Calm in Your Classroom, focuses on how to teach in a “trauma-informed classroom” (and is one in a series of courses called Trauma-Informed Practices). Trauma-informed teachers understand that trauma affects the brain, which in turn affects every aspect of learning.

    “We know enough about the science to know that teachers can make a huge difference,” says Patricia Jennings, author of the book The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom: Building Resilience with Compassionate Teaching, and a professor at the University of Virginia. “The school environment is one of the places where students who are exposed to real challenges at home can find safety and stability,” she says in an article that is part of the Creating Calm in Your Classroom curriculum at Dominican. The course, which makes the use of other contemporary articles, documents, and podcasts, includes a “visual safari” of your own classroom, where you consider the changes that might make a difference.

    How do you know if children are reacting to trauma? Dr. Brown talks about the following symptoms, especially in children from ages 1-10:

    • An increase in nightmares or thoughts or images that they feel they can’t control;
    • An increase in negative feelings, like anxiety, anger, sadness, or numbness. Some children may revert to behaviors they had outgrown, such as separation anxiety or bedwetting;
    • Increased difficulty in focus and concentration, or avoidance behaviors, as when a child wants to stay home from school even when he or she is not ill;
    • An increase in physical symptoms that have no illness-based cause, such as headaches, stomachaches, or inability to sleep.

    The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has many resources for teachers during the pandemic, including fact sheets, tip sheets, webinars and articles. In one of its available downloads, Trauma-Informed School Strategies during COVID-19, it encourages educators and school staff to practice some of the following strategies for their own well-being:

    • Practice self-care. You can’t take care of others if you are yourself in need.
    • Create social support for yourself. This could take the form of a Zoom coffee break or after-school session with colleagues, sharing experiences and strategies.
    • Follow a personal routine, even if all your classroom routines are new. This includes simple things like getting up at a regular time, getting dressed for school (whether you are in-person or virtual), and getting regular exercise and nutrition.
    • Model for your students. Their eyes and ears are wide open to your words and actions.
    • Follow safe personal health practices, such as wearing masks, social-distancing, and using hand-sanitizer, especially if you are teaching in a live classroom setting.

    And in the classroom?

    • Establish your classroom’s routine, but talk to your students about how changes in routine are hard, and that there may be more to come.
    • Offer information in digestible amounts, and encourage your kids to ask questions.
    • Understand that your grading standards may need to adjust. Some students should receive praise simply for managing to finish a homework assignment remotely. Realize that in virtual classrooms, some students may feel vulnerable about exposing their home situation to others.
    • Provide wellness activities that help your students feel safe, valued, and competent. The NCTSN download gives several examples of these activities.

    Above all, realize that as a teacher, you hold an even more-important-than-normal position right now in your students’ lives. “The adults in the school environment may be the most stable and mentally well people [some students] have contact with,” said Jennings, the professor whose work is part of the Dominican course. “Their teachers can become role models for them for what a healthy adult is like. School can become a sanctuary for kids like this.”

    For more information or to register for the course, which is online, self-paced, and worth a semester credit of continuing education, visit Dominican University online here.

    Photo credit: Halfpoint, via iStock images